Veteran pianist-composer Ran Blake includes original music, a few standards and interpretations of some of George Russell’s most important recorded pieces on this tender but ultimately bracing tribute to his longtime friend and colleague. A serene, almost autumnal feel permeates this set, but there’s no sentimentality; the music resonates with clear-eyed affirmation of life’s complexities and ambiguities.
In addition to his work in the Third Stream, Russell was an early electronic music visionary, and several of these tracks reflect this. Blake explores both the contrasting and complementary aspects of synthesized and organic instrument sounds, and over the course of the disc, no fewer than 12 instrumentalists appear in varying contexts and combinations along with Blake. In most cases, the synthesized effects create a context in which the organic sounds can thrive and grow. They also heighten and deepen the music’s emotional thrust, as on “Alice Norbury,” in which the romanticism implied by the wafting synth-string backing is countered by a palpable emotional tautness, complementing and challenging the serenity of Blake’s sonic landscape.
Among the Russell compositions recast are “Living Time” (from the 1972 Bill Evans/George Russell LP of that title), a movement from Vertical Form VI (Russell’s pioneering electronic music LP, recorded in 1977) and several selections from Russell’s landmark 1957 debut, The Jazz Workshop. As ever, Blake can reimagine even familiar material so thoroughly, yet remain so true to the spirit of the original, that the results can be almost unrecognizable yet oddly familiar. Blake’s own contributions, some co-written, are aural vignettes paying tribute to events, places and people in Russell’s life, delivered with grace, artistry and deep feeling unburdened by bathos.